Mary Beard: “I wouldn’t just turn the other cheek”

By Julia Atherley

Mary Beard is a Professor of Classics at Cambridge University, the Classics editor of the Times Literary Supplement, author of SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome, a recipient of an OBE, and an outspoken feminist. She has recently published Women & Power: A Manifesto about the classical tradition of silencing women in the public sphere, and how this translates to modern day sexism.  She frequently voices her feminist views and has consequentially been the target of online harassment and abuse. I spoke to her about her desire to look to the past to understand our own society, and her experiences with everyday misogyny. 

You have always been vocal about your feminist views, but this is your first book entirely focusing on gender issues. What made you finally want to write specifically about sexism in ‘Women & Power’?

“There has been a very long history of silencing women in the West”

It was happenstance really. I had done two lectures on related themes and they went together well… and more than that, I felt they added up to a message – maybe even a manifesto. So it seemed useful to put them out in traditional covers.

Working in a university which has been male-dominated for the majority of its time, have you seen any changes in the ap­proach to gender during your time at Cambridge? How far do UK universities have to go?

They have to go a lot further. But when I was an undergraduate, 12% of Cambridge stu­dents were women. Now it is more or less 50%. There has been a revolution since the early 70s, but of course this doesn’t mean the job is done.

Your book traces the roots of modern misogyny back to Athens and Rome, why do we need to look to the Greeks and Ro­mans to better understand our own society?

We need to understand some of the reasons why we think as we do. Our sexism and misogyny are learned from our predecessors, they’re not natural. Now that doesn’t mean that we can simply blame the past for our failings. But we do need to see that there has been a very long history of silencing women in the West.

Is trolling a modern equivalent to how women have been silenced in public speaking? The common response is ‘keep mum and block them’ – what, in your opinion, is the best way to respond to online harassment?

I think that everyone online has to make the decisions they are comfortable with. If people want to block and not respond I understand that, but I do feel for me that that is a cop out – and it mir­rors what women have always been told to do (put up and shut up). If someone came up to me in a bar and said that my va­gina smelled like a cabbage (as they have on twitter), I would respond. I wouldn’t just turn the other cheek.

“If someone came up to me in a bar and said that my vagina smelled like a cabbage, I would respond. I wouldn’t just turn the other cheek.”

The book seems all the more pertinent considering the on­going Westminster harassment scandal. Is there a classical prec­edent for this ingrained system of abuse? Is the problem being dealt with in the correct way by the government and by the media?

I am not sure. I fear that there is too much concentration on ce­lebrity environments. The Palace of Westminster is one thing, but women have this as they stand next to the average photocopier. I am not espe­cially interested in naming and sham­ing for a hand on the knee 15 years ago, I want the guys to stop doing it.

Finally, the subtitle for ‘Women & Power’ is ‘A Manifesto’. I wonder what solutions you could of­fer us to justify such a subtitle. How can we begin to think about redefining power in the 21st century?

Well maybe manifesto should have a ques­tion mark by it! It is clear enough to me what the problem is. I think I help a bit by analysing with a classical focus. But we all have to work on the solution.

Image: University of Kent via Flickr

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